Yes, according to a study published in the August issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel University and the RAND Corporation found that construction of a light-rail system (LRT) in Charlotte, North Carolina resulted in increased physical activity and subsequent weight loss by people served by light-rail.
“The built environment can constrain or facilitate physical activity,” says lead investigator John M. MacDonald, PhD, University of Pennsylvania. “Understanding ways to encourage greater use of local environments for physical activity offers some hope for reducing the growth in the prevalence of obesity.”
The study reinforces what the development community has already known, says Ed McMahon, senior resident fellow for sustainable development at the Urban Land Institute. “We should be thinking about development that maximizes transit — non motorized transportation, walkable developments that provides more choices for people to get around, and according to this new study, makes people healthier,” McMahon explains. “Today, the major trend that one can’t miss in the real estate sector in America is transit oriented development (TOD).”
America has always stood for choices, but over the past several decades, families and others usually had one choice – to live in an area which required them to drive everywhere for everything. “Sustainability – developing along major transit corridors rather than continue the sprawl into the countryside is good for business, good for young people who don’t need cars to get around, and good for people’s health,” explains McMahon. “It’s a win-win-win situation.”
Suburban development contributes to America’s obesity epidemic, agrees Christopher B. Leinberger, Professor of Practice at the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning and founding partner of Arcadia Land Company. “In the suburbs, there are very few meaningful destinations you can walk, which means you have to consciously get exercise,” Leinberger continues, “as opposed to exercise being part of your everyday life in walkable places such as many parts of Washington, DC, Manhattan, San Francisco, Chicago, and Portland. Walkable places tend to have much lower obesity statistics because people don’t drive as much.”
Leinberger says he is not opposed to drivable suburban development. “But it means we are less healthy by the way we are living,” he adds. “Living in the suburbs is a perfectly market viable alternative, but with it comes unintended consequences households have to deal with – like individuals are more likely to become overweight.”
In addition to obesity, there are other consequences of suburban living as well, including increased energy use — resulting in higher greenhouse gas emissions — and increased social and racial segregation. “There is also dramatically increased household spending on transportation,” says Leinberger, “as well as the allocation of time spent away from home stuck in traffic.
The shift to a healthier lifestyle is among the reasons for the continuing popularity of TODs in the DC-area. “In DC, 90% of walkable places are rail transit served,” says Leinberger. “We don’t have definite evidence that’s scientifically proven yet but it’s pretty intuitive that transit is required for walkable places to work which helps improve people’s health.”
Adds University of Pennsylvania’s MacDonald: “Land-use planning and travel choice have a clear impact on health outcomes. Public transit systems can generate positive health impacts by encouraging greater numbers of users to walk to station stops and maintain more physically active lives.”